‘Fire Island’ Costume Designer Interview

Photo: Jeong Park/Searchlight

Home to underwear parties and the Meat Rack, the gay haven’t known as Fire Island is largely clothing optional. So it goes too for Fire Island, the new romantic comedy (streaming on Hulu now) written by and starring Joel Kim Booster. fire island follows a group of queer besties on their yearly trip of beach, boys, and tea. It’s a modern interpretation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but with poppers and OnlyFans references, directed by Andrew Ahn and co-starring Bowen Yang and Margaret Cho.

Just moments after their ferry sets course for the Pines, gaggles of gays pull off their shirts in preparation for the promised land. When dressing a movie about a place where many don’t wear much in the summer, custom designer David Tabbert treated each character’s wardrobe as an accent “to the scenes and emotions,” he told Vulture.

Tabbert himself has been going to Fire Island since his 20s. With the film’s script in hand, he thought about how he packs for his own getaways: swimsuits that double as shorts, layers that can be thrown on easily. Especially important was defining his approach to the film’s portrayals of class and delineating between our protagonist’s group of friends (budget queens who met working at a Williamsburg brunch spot) and the wealthy guys (a doctor, a lawyer, and a brand manager, the three rich gay jobs) they meet while going out, who are staying in a luxurious Ocean Walk house.

Tabbert also wanted to tout queer designers. The fire island crew was often dressed in R. Swiader, Double Scorpio, Telfar, Patrick Church, and more.

Illustration: Cassandra Hsieh

Confident and self-assured, Noah never backs down from a chance to stand up for his friends or deliver a searing retort. He’s built tough skin over time and may be comfortable putting his body on display, but he is still guarded when it comes to affairs of the heart. Muscle shirts, cutoff shorts, and solid-colored briefs and Speedos make up most of his getaway garments; vintage Adidas and Y, IWO (Yeah, I Work Out) tanks show off lots of skin, and all his swimwear dele is from R. Swiader. And of course his underwear-party look is a pristine white pair of Calvin Klein briefs.

fire island star and writer Joel Kim Booster (far right) in an R. Swiader swimmer.
Photo: Hulu

“We wanted to really consider the fact that Noah and his group of friends live in a way that’s so familiar to so many young people in cities like New York and San Francisco,” Tabbert said. “They live paycheck to paycheck and aren’t by any means rich. Their rent is high, they live in small apartments, but they each have their own unique style.” Also, importantly, “Joel is hot. We wanted to make sure he looked sexy.”

Tabbert knew he’d hit the nail on the head when he saw “basically the spitting image” of Noah also wearing a Y,IWO tank, athleisure shorts, and crew socks walking into the R. Swiader store shortly after wrapping the movie. Now we finally know what Elizabeth Bennett would wear to the beach.

Photo: Jeong Park/Searchlight

Noah’s friendship with Howie is one forged through working drunk brunch shifts together in their 20s and mutual solidarity as Asian men in the gay community. A hopeless romantic in the body of a freelance graphic designer living in San Francisco, Howie craves a love with grand gestures and kisses in the rain. The inverse to Noah’s confidence, Howie’s insecurity is accented with an abundance of practical overshirts. Short-sleeve button-downs from Bonobos and Saturdays NYC work almost as a “security blanket” for him, frequently paired with Parke and Ronen shorts. Tabbert also used different necklines to show Howie’s changing levels of comfort: crew-neck shirts when he’s feeling guarded and tank tops when he’s more confident.

When the group prepares for the underwear party, Howie gets caked up in red-and-white underwear with a cut-out in the back. At the current party, however, he shows up in far less revealing shorts. “We wanted to show there was some hesitation there,” Tabbert explained. “It was very, very intentional. In the end, we wanted to show he played it safer.”

Photo: Jeong Park/Searchlight

The mama bear, resident lesbian, and oh-so-wise mentor of the group, Erin hosts her litter of gay boys at a well-styled house on the Tuna Walk she bought with settlement money from being served glass at a franchise restaurant. (Secure the bag however you can!) Much of her wardrobe was sourced from vintage shops, and the custom team dyed her robes and halter tops themselves. The only constant in Erin’s wardrobe is a pair of incredible vintage Levi cutoffs that “work with everything,” Tabbert said, while her earrings and shoes change in almost every scene. Her clothes are a material reflection of her many colorful years of her on the island, Tabbert explained. “We really wanted them to have a storied history.”

Matt Rogers in Luke’s signature ascot (left), Zane Phillips as Dex (center), and and Tomás Matos as Keegan (right).
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Luke’s style is “doing the most, saying the least.” He and Keegan (Tomás Matos) are the pizzazz and jazz hands of the group, two besties who met in theater school. So it makes sense that he goes the extra mile, especially when it comes to his clothes: crochet shorts from Lord Von Schmitt, a singlet from Patrick Church, and a custom rhinestone whistle hung on a Lockwood 51 lanyard. His Pretty Snake swimsuit from an after-party scene even has ends on the side. Luke’s looks are pinned together by a custom Kapital bandanna he wears around his neck as an ascot in pretty much every scene.

Costume designer David Tabbert (left) and Tomás Matos (right) on the set of Fire Island.
Photo: David Tabbert

Keegan and Luke are the campy, queer version of the Wonder Twins. Their combined energy is best illustrated during a round of “Heads Up!” when they flawlessly reenact Marisa Tomei’s biological-clock monologue from My Cousin Vinny. Never without their Edgar Posa pearls and “sissy” nameplate necklace, Keegan manifests their unapologetic sense of freedom in their looks. Keegan also stunts when it comes to headwear, sporting pieces such as a Telfar durag and a crown from Jimaye. The character also has the honor of wearing one of Tabbert’s favorite costumes: Keegan’s ensemble for the underwear party. “Tomás is from Staten Island, and as a little shout-out we turned a Staten Island bike-racing shirt into a crop top and put them in a harness singlet with a little bag the size of an Airpod case,” Tabbert said.

Also very important: their high-heeled platform boots are Jessica Simpson.

Torian Miller (far right) in a Hawaiian-print polo and one of Max’s signature bucket hats.
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

The much-needed voice of reason for the Tuna Walk boys, Max has a great head on his shoulders and is averse to mess. His softer and more grounded sensibilities are reflected in his practical choices: plenty of bucket hats and printed button-ups. “We wanted dad vibes for him,” Tabbert said. That meant “polos, aloha shirts, and New Balance 993s.”

Left to right: James Scully as Charlie, Nick Adams as Cooper, and Conrad Ricamora as Will.
Photo: Jeong Park/Searchlight

If you close your eyes and think of someone whose family vacations (yes, “vacations” as a verb) on Martha’s Vineyard, Charlie is right on the money. The New England money. A sweet but oblivious doctor and best friend to Will, he’s more open to the Fire Island experience and immediately sparks a connection with Howie. He’s sort of like a rich, brunette golden retriever.

Charlie dresses in brands including Polo Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Vineyard Vines, Sperry Topsiders, and Rowing Blazers. “With the Ocean Walk boys, we wanted to show constant changes of clothing where you never really saw the same outfit worn more than once,” Tabbert explained.

Visiting the island from the West Coast, uptight Will doesn’t offer the warmest welcome when he first meets the Tuna Walk guys. Turns out his prickliness from him comes from feeling like he has to keep his guard up and protect his friends from him. He finally starts to soften a bit when he finds Noah reading Alice Munro, because who TF else reads a book while at the Pines? Outfitted in more expensive brands including Ron Dorff, Giorgio Armani, and Burberry, Will clearly has money but perhaps not a lot of style. He’s the sort of guy who spends a lot on his clothes because he thinks he’s supposed to.

“It was important he not be so flashy or intentionally stylish but instead the kind of guy who is so rich he’ll spend $400 on a Brunello Cucinelli T-shirt, but it’s just a plain gray T-shirt,” Tabbert said. “I don’t know if we actually put Brunello in the movie, because it would be kind of a blow to the budget. On-camera, it doesn’t have the same appreciation.”

Rounding out the group of Ocean Walk guys, Cooper is more aggressively elitist and obnoxious both in how he interacts with other characters and how he dresses. He’s the “brand manager,” whatever that means. “Cooper was the Caroline Bingley, ostentatious and over-the-top,” Tabbert said. He wears a Christian Dior chain necklace throughout the movie. At tea, he’s in head-to-toe Gucci. The day after tea, head-to-toe Versace. Last scene? Balenciaga head-to-toe. Duh.

Zane Phillips as Dex in a cutoff tee at the Pantry.
Photo: Jeong Park/Searchlight

Trouble takes the shape of a tall, muscled, mustached glass of water known as Dex, whom Tabbert dressed to “showcase all the assets,” he explained. When Noah first runs into Dex at the Pantry, he’s wearing shorts with a handkerchief in the back pocket as a nod to hanky codes, which might not be much of a thing now, but play a part in queer history as community identifiers.

“He was the only person in the movie who never changed his clothes,” Tabbert said. “He’s a little bit grungy, trashy. We’re not sure how often he showers, and we don’t care.”

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